I'll say it up front: I don't like miracles. I find them hard to write about, because I find them hard to think about. I find them hard to think about because miracles, by definition, are always exceptional. If they were predictable or reliable, they wouldn't be miracles, would they? For the writer of a dvar torah -- or at least for *this* writer -- they generate what are essentially "plot holes". It's like when you're watching the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, and he turns back time to save Lois Lane. At first you're like, "cool!"...but then later you find yourself thinking, "Wait, why doesn't he just do that for everything?"
The bigger the miracle, the bigger the problem. This parsha has some of the biggest, boldest, plot-holiest (heh heh) miracles ever.
To see what I mean, let's look at the death of the first-born. God kills thousands of Egyptian children deliberately and with elaborate pre-meditation. God makes no distinction between Egyptian familes that might have contributed to the plight of the Hebrews and those that might have been just as afflicted by Pharaoh's rule. But...why? Weren't there alternatives? For goodness' sake, there had just been *six days* of Egyptian-only darkness! Why not leave then?
As with any fan favourite, there are people ready to tell you, "no, no, man...look, it *totally* makes sense!"
Some commentators quote Rashi, who says that the firstborn of even the Egyptian prisoners were killed because they "rejoiced at the misfortune of the Israelites". Rashi goes on to explain that the plague was made worse for the Egyptians because their women were so unfaithful; there were many pairings of women with younger unmarried men, such that an unexpected number of children ended up being *someone's* firstborn.
In her book "In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah", Judith Antonelli appears to agree with Rashi when it comes to the Egyptian prisoners -- calling the plague "democratic" -- but disapproves of his insertion of female infidelity and his patrilineal assignment of first-born-hood. *Her* main justification for the plague is that first-born sons were a kind of cult idol. They were often sacrificed to appease the Egyptian gods, as in many regions at the time. Since God killed both sons *and* daughters, the lesson was that women have the same value as men...as sacrifices, at least!
Other writers point to a Midrash that tells of the firstborn rebelling against Pharaoh for being so stubborn. Each firstborn kills his own father for standing with Pharaoh, after which they are killed themselves by Pharaoh's forces. In this account, God has nothing to do with it at all.
The common implication here is that Egyptian society was morally inferior and thus deserved, needed, or even carried out the 10th plague. To the extent that God was involved at all, it was to teach them a lesson. But, what lesson? Did God teach them that idolizing and/or sacrificing firstborns is wrong by requiring their death as repayment for enslaving the Israelites? Did God teach them that they should end their moral corruption by performing an act so morally questionable that we are *still* talking about it today?
It's hard to use the Egyptians for justification, but what about us? Was it all necessary to get the Hebrews in the right frame of mind to truly leave behind their slavery and follow God?
Remember Indiana Jones? Remember how he fought so hard to make sure the Nazis didn't use the Ark -- *our* Ark! -- to win the war? And he did it, right? Nope. Think about it. What stopped the Nazis? Was it <villain accent>Dr. Jones</villain accent>? No! They *got* the Ark! They *opened* the Ark! Then, they melted...no thanks to Indiana. All that running around, all that digging in the desert, all those *snakes*...for nothing.
...which brings us back to the dead Egyptian babies. To impress the Israelites, right? The same ones that go on to build a Golden Calf very shortly afterward? Yup. Those ones. Turns out, only *two* the people who witnessed that very-impressive 10th plague even get into Israel. Is that worth it?
All of this, everything so far, is just one small part of the discussion of one plague. We could go on like that -- and *have* -- for thousands of years. Each miracle raises dozens of questions, and each answer raises a dozen more. That's kind of appropriate, I guess. For me, though, attempting to explain or justify these miracles in any literal sense is just not satisfying. Instead, I'm going to retreat to the realm of broad allegory with the hopes of gleaning something that feels like insight.
In her dvar on Bo, Rabbi Laura Geller quotes philosopher Michael Walzer thusly on the political message of Passover: “First; that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second; that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”
When I read Walzer's words, and work hard to pre-tenderize my heart, what I hear in that heart is this: "First; that regardless of situation, we are all still enslaved and enslaving; second; that there are changes we can make to become more free and more freedom-giving; and third; that those changes are only possible through individual and collective sacrifice."
Looking back at the conundrum of the first-born from this abstracted perspective, we can perceive something more meaningful. The parsha ends with the commandment to sacrifice, or offer sacrifice for, every first-born. One's first born is one's pride, it is one's first projection of oneself into the future, it is the first chance for control over what will come. It is an *individual* acheivement: My first born is mine, not yours, not theirs, and not ours. Sacrificing the first born -- the first crops, the first progeny of livestock -- is sacrificing the very entitlement to which we have the greatest and most urgent claim.
That is a breathtakingly foreign idea these days, isn't it? We live in a time and place that encourages aspiration and idolizes ambition, that tells us we should grab hold of whatever comes our way and make sure we get from it everything we deserve. If we manage to get things we don't deserve, even better. In fact, that means we must have deserved them. Most of all, we should never give anything up without a fight...preferably a loud spectacle of a fight that will go viral on YouTube, after which we sue for our share of the ad revenue. Nobody -- but *nobody* -- can tell us that we should ever accept less that what we expected. We're entitled to it. Take advantage, or be taken advantage of. It's a zero-sum, me-first game.
Now, many of you are probably thinking, "I know what he's talking about, but I'm not like that. I *know* people like that, but I'm not one of them.". And, given who I'm talking to, you're probably right. I mean *I'm* not like that either...umm...most of the time. And if I *was*, just for the sake of argument, I would have a *reason*!
*That's* the tricky part, of course. Everyone has a reason. Everyone has something they couldn't have been expected to put up with, or to do without. I fully admit that I know what this feels like. I let myself get frustrated at the most minor of disappointments sometimes. Forget giving up my first born; I've gotten peeved giving up my third soy mocha. I've told my kids for a long time that when I look back on my biggest mistakes in life, the times I really went wrong, the things I really wish I could do over, I see a clear pattern. Each time, I managed to tell myself, "I can't be expected put up with this." Then, I proceeded to be "like that": angry, demanding, inflexible, impatient, unsympathetic, entitled. Entitled to my way, entitled to what I had allowed myself to expect.
Entitlement, it turns out, is the meta-firstborn. It is that which must be sacrificed before anything else. Sacrifice is not the same as loss; it is willing loss for a purpose. Before one can willingly sacrifice something, it must first be sacrificed in the mind, a sacrifice made through the burning of built-up expectations. And, here's the strangest part: If done properly, it is the only sacrifice. Sacrificing your entitlement to what you have to give up - time, comfort, convenience, opportunity - can turn giving-up into giving-back. Once entitlement is sacrificed, all else becomes a mere returning, with thanks, of things briefly borrowed from the universe.
Here I can really feel the connection between sacrifice and freedom. For many of us comfy first-worlders, the slavery we experience is largely internal. It is a slavery to the massive edifices of expectations we've taken on. Some were handed to us, but most are self-imposed. Some are important, but many are tied to the myriad trivial but oh-so-enticing little conveniences and pleasures that surround us. There are just so many things we can't be expected to do without.
Which leads to the other side of the coin. Too many people have owned slaves over time for them to all be evil; statistically, they were just like us. We have to assume, then, that they could not percieve the alternative. They must have convinced themselves that they could not be expected to do without their slaves. Slavery requires entitlement. The external bonds of the slave are mirrored by the internal bonds of the enslaver. The former cannot be freed until the latter frees themselves.
Who are *our* slaves? What are we telling ourselves we could not do without, or could not put up with? Which of our entitlements are we willing to sacrifice to the cause of freedom and justice? It's an important question: We have big problems to solve. Consider just one: 2014 was the warmest year on record. Sacrifices there will be, one way or another. The Pacific islanders living a scant metre above sea level have no doubt about this. Let's remember them the next time we hear somebody saying we couldn't possibly be expected to put up with the risk of some economic turmoil, slower growth, or reduced competitiveness. Let's remember that those economic risks -- exactly those ones -- have always been associated with abolishing slavery. Poverty, mental illness, aboriginal issues, substance abuse...the list of challenges is long. I fear we tell those who have the fewest options to make bricks with no straw while failing to explore our own inconvenient alternatives.
It occurs to me that my problems with the 10th plague boil down to something very similar. A God of miracles simply *had* to have other options. There must have been alternatives that were not explored. It follows fairly directly that God must have just wanted to do things God's preferred way, no matter the cost to others. That just feels bad. If I'm to be consistent about it, though, I have to feel the same way about my own similar failures. I can't perform miracles (yet!) but there's a lot more I could do with relatively little sacrifice.
Maybe that's the lesson in the end: No matter how mind-bendingly miraculous the events of Parasha Bo seem, Parasha Bo actually happens every day. Every day, we have an opportunity to make good on the commandment to sacrifice our first-born, to burn a few of our entitlements and come out of that fire just a bit more free. We have a chance to use that freedom to loose our grip on chains we didn't even realize we were holding, then to reach out, join arms, and march together. It will be inconvenient, and it will feel uncomfortable, at least at first, but expecting things to change any other way is expecting a miracle, and...well...I don't like miracles.